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Author: Gerry Mooney

Family-friendly employment and the dream of the work-life balance

Updated Friday, 24th June 2011
Getting a balance between work and life is an attractive idea - but you've got to be able to separate them in order to balance them.

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Capitalism seeks to commodify everything, including our time. For many workers, this means that the so-called 'work-life-balance' is often at tipping point. Our work intrudes on our leisure time, through mobile accessibility, emails, and so on; and for many, while our waking hours are monopolised by work, our sleeping hours are too. In some ways this is nothing new: with industrialisation, town clocks with loud chimes were part of the mechanism to ensure workers arrived to the factories on time. In the current age, the increasing management of and intrusion into our private spheres, has been termed a part of a 'turbo-capitalism': the origins of this intensification are easy to trace, and to understand, according to Gerry Mooney

Family friendly employment and the pursuit of work-life balance

The emphasis on workfarist policies such as welfare to work sits somewhat uneasily with other policies that are slowly, but steadily, emerging and that seek to regulate work and personal lives in other ways.

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Here, the notion of work-life balance (WLB) has been particularly influential and so it is to this issue that we turn in order to examine further how personal lives become ordered through their intersections with work and social policy.

The growth of 'new' working patterns, the spread of new forms of 'flexible' working and changes in work organization have, for many, disrupted the rhythms of what were in the recent past regarded as 'traditional' in working life.

What has emerged is the '24/7' society in which, for example, all-day supermarkets, call centres, petrol stations and leisure centres grow to meet the needs of those working longer and more varied hours.

Indeed, some supermarkets promote and publicize themselves as fitting around the complex demands of home and work. The rise of the so-called '24/ 7' society both reflects and contributes to significant changes in the organization of paid work.

Many workers have experienced an increase in the hours they are expected to work and in the times when they are expected to work or to be ready to work if called upon. The rise of a long hours culture has been well documented - for example in Diane Perrons' 2003 study The new economy and the work-life balance: conceptual explorations and a case study of new media and long hours and round-the-clock shift working was, and remains, the norm for many welfare workers.

UK workers work the longest hours and receive less paid holiday time than their counterparts in the European Union (EU). This affects different groups of workers in different ways.

For example, the National Family and Parenting Institute found in 2000 there has been an increase in the number of fathers who complain that they have less and less time to spend with their family and children, while growing numbers of workers protest that they cannot take their holiday entitlements or find time for leisure and other pursuits.

Parents, spouses and partners comment that they often 'pass like ships in the night', with little time spent together.

A parent and child read together

The fear of job loss drives many people to engage in longer and longer hours at work or in work-related activities.

It is through these cultures and practices of paid employment that we can begin to understand how workers are encouraged and coerced into demonstrating their commitment to work.

Moreover, with the increasing emphasis placed on individuals taking more responsibility for their own financial security in retirement, such a commitment also reflects an assumption that paid employment is the means by which poverty in older age can be avoided.

In The Corrosion of Character: Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism in 1998, sociologist Richard Sennett suggested the consequence of these developments is a growing 'imbalance' between the values that are required to maintain family life and those necessary for working life, which leads, in his words, to a 'corrosion of character'.

Here Sennett is referring to a largely vanished world of work in which personal character mattered and which contrasts with the 'new' world of risk and flexibility in which people have to constantly reinvent themselves to maintain employability. In this new world, workers are wholly disposable and lack any long-term relationships with the organizations for which they work.

Sennett's concern with this 'imbalance' between work and personal life is reflected in the emergence of so-called 'family friendly' employment policies and in policies that are being developed to enhance WLB.

'Family friendly' and WLB have become increasingly important discourses in employment policy although we can see how work and personal lives continue to be constituted as separate domains.

In the UK, in the early 2000s, several government departments promoted WLB policies and ideas. For example, the Department Of Trade and Industry published The Essential Guide to Work Life Balance in 2001; a year earlier the Department for Employment and Education made Creating a Work Life Balance: A Good Practice for Employers available.

In April 2003, following (in the minimum way allowed) EU directives, new government legislation was passed allowing parents (both female and male) with children under 6 years and with disabled children up to 18 years to request 'flexible' forms of work from their employer, including part-time work. Companies are not compelled to agree to these requests, however.

Here, the idea of flexibility is in the drive from workers to secure work patterns that allow them to meet the demands of different areas of their lives (and to enjoy some of the pleasures) in contrast to employer-led flexibility motivated by a desire to maximize profitability. Struggles over conditions of employment have long been part of work place relations between employers and workers, and WLB is no exception.

In July 2003, 2,500 British Airways (BA) check-in staff based at London Heathrow and Gatwick airports took unofficial strike action against management plans to impose a new clocking-in system, amidst fears that this would lead to an increase in the number of hours they were expected to work.

With around 75% of BA's customer service staff women, and with a number of single parents among them, there was considerable concern that this would impact on child care.

The Sunday Herald provided the following comment from one union leader about those taking part in the strike:

Our members are not traditionally militant workers. Many of them have family responsibilities and just want to retain some balance between work and home lives.

And GMB official Kevin Curran offered this analysis of their demands:

It was a twenty-first century dispute where low-paid, mainly women, workers stood up and demanded dignity, respect and consultation from their employer. I believe that this dispute proves that time is the new money, and work-life balance and the quality of people's lives will become a major part of the collective bargaining agenda.
A window cleaner hanging off the side of a building

Reconciling family life and working lives is not only a dilemma for groups of workers like those at BA. It also poses problems for the UK government in the early 2000s.

On the one hand welfare to work, is premised on a 'work-first' agenda, while WLB is concerned with combining paid work and family life.


In other respects New Labour had also sought to promote family life - for example, in the Home Office's Supporting Families consultation document of 1998. However, the tensions underlying this are evidenced in the UK government's unwillingness to adopt the full range of 'family friendly' and WLB policies that are evident elsewhere in the EU.

As Simon Duncan noted in Social Policy and Society, New Labour's drive to make the UK a competitive economy based on flexible labour markets sat somewhat uneasily with the more rights based agenda of the EU. WLB policies in the UK by 2004 amounted to little more than encouraging employers to adopt more 'family friendly' working practices.

The idea that all parents can successfully combine the demands and responsibilities of paid work and family life has been central to New Labour's vision of a modern welfare system, a system in which work participation is maximized and welfare minimized. Alongside the workfarist strategies, 'family friendly' and WLB policies have become little more than strategies to maximize labour market participation. As Perrons argues: ' ... within this perspective, flexible working seems to be more concerned with accommodating life to rather demanding and unquestioned working hours rather than one of reorganizing work to allow time for domestic and caring responsibilities'.

The notion of 'flexibility' has been central to discussions of WLB. But 'flexibility' is a somewhat fluid and ambiguous term.

'Flexibility' for the employer is not the same as 'flexibility' for the worker. WLB policies have been promoted by the UK government as a means of increasing productivity and enhancing employee commitment.

Thus, WLB has been narrowly defined in terms of economic imperatives and a business agenda. It is not the individual or the family that is being promoted 'first' here, but instead once more the need to work.

WLB also carries with it some sense that people can increasingly negotiate and shape their own working lives; that through work, people can become active agents creating their own futures. The emphasis on individual responsibility does not end with the securing of paid employment or with bringing up children to recognize the duties and obligations of working.

A fruit picker

The emergence of the idea of an 'end of career' has resulted in more emphasis on individuals being able to engineer their own career, their own marketability through 'personal development' such as training and 'life-long learning'.

But beyond this, what has also been constructed is an emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for decisions about their work histories, their finances and their pensions. Clearly, some groups of very well paid workers can exercise a high degree of control over their working lives. It is likely that high-income dual earner households are in a much better position to finance WLB (though many do not achieve this) than so-called workless or 'work-poor' households.

However, the cost of paid child care alone is prohibitive for many households and parents often struggle to combine the demands of paid employment, domestic work and the care of children.

Home workers also toil to create any sense of a WLB. We need here, then, to distinguish between the position and opportunities open to highly paid professional households and those workers who, for whatever reason, are in low-paid, insecure or part-time employment and struggle as a result to attain even the basic working rights, let alone any sense of a WLB.

The pursuit of WLB and 'family friendly' employment policies is at odds both with the realities of the modern work place and the experiences of the growing armies of poorly paid domestic workers that are, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, increasingly servicing middle-class homes in the UK, Ireland, the USA and elsewhere around the globe

In allowing others to achieve a WLB, including growing numbers of professional women, these mainly female migrant workers suffer from a culture of long hours and ill-health.

The alienation of paid employment for these and millions of other workers, and the lack of any meaningful control over their working life means that WLB is a fiction for many. It is here that inequalities of power are founded.

Opportunities in the work place (wherever that is located) and opportunities for a WLB are structured by social divisions. Social divisions and inequalities of class, gender, ethnicity and age are central to the relationship between work, personal lives and social policies. WLB is no exception.

For workers on poor and irregular wages, such as migrant maids, WLB has little real meaning. Here, the class, gender and ethnic position of these vulnerable workers structures their life chances in very different and unequal ways from the highly paid professionals whom they service.

There are other patterns of power and inequality - for instance, the ways in which different forms of voluntary work had become, in recent decades, more central to the delivery of welfare. While we argued then that not all voluntary work is freely chosen, where it is, this contributes to a very different sense of WLB than for those voluntary workers who seek, through voluntary work, a route to more formalized paid employment.

We can see that the tensions between welfare to work and WLB policies reflect the ways in which New Labour sought to construct welfare, work and personal lives as separate spheres or arenas. The idea that we can 'balance' work and life implies some sense of a division between them.

But work and personal life are not easily separated, but overlap and shape each other in many different ways. Many people gain meaning to their life through their work, while others see paid employment as an opportunity to make choices about lifestyle or as a necessary condition of their everyday life.

The notion of a WLB implies a somewhat arbitrary separation between work and 'other' aspects of personal life such as family, friendships and social networks. It also carries with it an increasing emphasis on the individual, and their duties and obligations.

Discourses of independence, dependency and personal responsibility are mobilized and the dominant subject of social policy remains the free individual, organizing their personal life around the rhythms of work and of the market.

This article is adapted from Work: Personal Lives And Social Policy, part of the Personal Lives And Social Policy series published by The Open University and The Policy Press.

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